Rita Gardner today...
Rita Gardner today...
The beautiful ballads from The Fantasticks--"Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You," etc.--tend to be incredibly moving no matter who's performing them, in whatever context. But to hear these songs sung today by the woman who created the role of The Girl in the one true "now and forever" musical, on the same stage where the show is still running and about to celebrate its 40th anniversary (on May 3)--well, get out your handkerchiefs, folks.

Rita Gardner's performance as The Girl (a.k.a. Luisa) in the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt classic is the stuff of legend; happily, her definitive renditions of the Fantasticks songs are preserved on the show's original cast album, about to re-released in a new CD edition on the Decca Broadway label. Gardner is currently starring in a one-woman revue called Try to Remember: A Look Back at Off-Broadway, playing at the Sullivan Street Playhouse on Saturday evenings at 10 p.m. (following the The Fantasticks).

....and in The Fantasticksin 1960
....and in The Fantasticks
in 1960
"When I was putting the show together, so many stories occurred to me," she says of Try to Remember. The thoroughly delightful revue is smartly directed by Barry Kleinbort, with Alex Rybeck as musical director/pianist. One of the most remarkable things about it is the fact that Gardner's singing voice remains in pristine condition--all the more amazing since she is a lyric soprano, a type of voice especially prone to darken and deteriorate with age. So, what's the lady's secret?

"If you sing in the right keys and you don't belt, you can preserve your voice," Gardner insists. "You only have one pair of vocal cords, and you can't do everything. I had a wonderful, old Hungarian voice teacher named Margit Schey-Kux who would say, 'Rita, no belting!' I've always remembered that. And I still study. Now, I have a terrific singing teacher named John Bayliss."

Gardner was a true Off-Broadway princess in the '60s, appearing in such seminal shows as Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and To Be Young, Gifted, and Black in addition to The Fantasticks. Along with songs from the above and from many other O-B classics (The Threepenny Opera, Starting Here, Starting Now, etc.), anecdotes of now-famous colleagues from Charles Nelson Reilly to Larry Hagman to Cicely Tyson are shared by Gardner during the course of Try to Remember. She also offers a loving remembrance of Kenneth Nelson, who created the role of The Boy in The Fantasticks and with whom she shared a deep bond of friendship.

Speaking of her most famous credit, no one is more thrilled at the show's mind-boggling longevity than Gardner. "It's because of [producer] Lore Noto's determination that The Fantasticks is still running," she says. "Everyone told him to close it right after it opened. That's all true." On the subject of working with Jerry Orbach, the original cast's most famous acting alum, she says: "He was quite marvelous in the show. A lot of the 'Round and Round' number was improvised; I fell into Jerry's arms at one point, and Word Baker--the director--said, 'That's great, let's use it.' Word was a great editor, but he allowed our imaginations to work."

Gardner was surprised to hear that the movie version of The Fantasticks--filmed several years ago, but never given a theatrical release--is apparently going direct to video next month. "I haven't seen it," she says, "but I did some voice-over work with Michael Ritchie, who directed it, about two years ago. He said, 'I don't know when that thing is ever going to open!' "

Until now, people who've wanted to take The Fantasticks home with them have turned to that fabulous original cast recording--essential to any musical theater enthusiast's collection for the gorgeous vocals of Gardner, Nelson, and Orbach. "When we did the album," Gardner recalls, "nobody thought it would sell. I think everything was done in one or two takes, because MGM [the label that first released the recording on LP] was not going to spend a lot of money on it. We were lucky to have such good musicians. We just went in and did it."

Gardner's career has included a number of Broadway appearances, often as a pinch-hitter. "I stood by in Last of the Red-Hot Lovers and The Prisoner of Second Avenue," she says. "And I was a standby in a show called Ari, which was a musical version of Exodus! I stood by for Constance Towers, but the show didn't last very long. I also stood by for Barbara Harris in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." As a first-string star, she was in the cult musical A Family Affair: "John Kander wrote the music, Bill Goldman and Jim Goldman wrote the book and lyrics. Word Baker was the original director, but Hal Prince took over; it was his time directing a show." Gardner also replaced Susan Watson in Ben Franklin in Paris, which gave her the "joyous" opportunity to play opposite Robert Preston.

Why wasn't her Broadway career even more illustrious, given her extraordinary talent? "I played the ultimate ingénue in The Fantasticks," she says. "Then you get older, and you can't go back to that. As you start to mature, you can't bring that same innocence to those young roles. Also, the style of music on Broadway started to change in the late '60s, when shows like Hair came in. Now, that legit style is back, a least a little bit: They're reviving shows like Kiss Me, Kate, so you're hearing voices again. I love Marin Mazzie and Rebecca Luker. And, of course, Audra McDonald has a gorgeous voice. I'm looking at sopranos, aren't I! I hope they don't have to sing things out of their register, because if they start to do that, they're going to lose their voices."

For those who might ask where Gardner has been in recent years, the answer is: working steadily, but usually not in New York. "I decided at least 10 years ago that I would do [non-musical] plays in regional theater, like Steel Magnolias and The Glass Menagerie," she explains. "It got to the point where I couldn't do musicals, because there were no parts for me. But I did a lovely musical last year at Ford's Theatre in Washington; I played Sara Delano Roosevelt in a show called Eleanor: A Love Story. We just recorded the CD."

To put it mildly, Gardner is very much enjoying her current project, with all the emotional resonance it entails. When was the last time she saw The Fantasticks as an audience member?

"It was about seven or eight years ago," she says. "I had been asked to direct the show at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Florida, so I went to see it Off-Broadway. That was actually my first time--I had never seen it before. And I thought, 'This really is good!' "